Today I’m going to ask some more personal questions. If you aren’t interested in examining your values and your behavior, this might not be the right episode for you. I’m not going to have you answer to other people but I’m going to ask some questions that I think will make some people feel uncomfortable but that’s in the short term. In the long term, I think this will get you to act. I mean my goal is to get you to act more consistently with your values which values evaluate better or worse. I think it will lead you to live a better life.
And I am going to begin with a question. It sounds really… Well, here’s the question. Which is easier: freeing slaves, if you’re a slave owner, or not using disposable cups and bottles, not taking plastic bags when you go to the store? Which is easier: to get rid of your slaves or to get rid of plastic bags? Because I think getting rid of slaves is probably harder than people think. And yet they say that they would do it and something that is much, much easier they don’t do. So, let’s go in a little more detail.
The New York Times had a story, this is what prompted it for me and the headline of the story a couple of days ago was Holocaust is Fading from Memory, survey finds. And it reported a survey and quoting the article, here’s some of the results: thirty-one percent of Americans and 41 percent of millennials believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust. The actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans and 66 percent of millennials cannot say what Auschwitz was. So why did this get me thinking? Because my last name Spodek is Polish, it’s Jewish Polish. Growing up my father clarified, because it was on my father’s side, that our ancestors lived within the boundaries of Poland. We were not Polish because as Jews they were not considered Polish. When I think of the Holocaust I don’t know how many… I mean my family came over… My father’s parents and grandparents came over about a century ago. So, this is before World War Two and the Holocaust and some before World War One. And so, we have cousins and uncles and people that I don’t know. I don’t know how many of them were lost who were living in Poland when the war broke out and the Holocaust broke out and were killed.
But I can tell you that growing up, down the block from where we lived was a couple, a German Jewish couple. They had escaped Germany. They were close with the family. And here’s what we knew. There was a time after they left where they lived when the anti-Semitism was rising. Years later they I think they caught a boat from England to the United States and this period of years from how they escaped Nazi Germany and got to the Free world that’s unknown. They never talked about it. I can’t imagine what happened to get free from that time. In any case, is it growing up… I remember teachers teaching us that if in Nazi Germany if you had blonde hair and blue eyes, you could whoever you wanted without consequence because that was the racist ideology of the time. Now here’s the thing. I had blonde hair and blue eyes growing up. My eyes are still blue but my hair has turned, I think the color is called mousy but it’s not blonde anymore but it was. On my mom’s side, where Anglo-Saxon Protestant came over in 1635. My mom said she grew up on a farm and in a small town in South Dakota. But I had blonde hair and blue eyes from that side.
And so, here’s the thing. I had this funny situation where in principle at some other time I could’ve done whatever I wanted although I was on both sides of that one. My question to you is what would you do in an oppressive regime that you disagreed with that caused death and suffering, if resisting could cause you suffering yourself but you could pass as the [unintelligible] power and escape that risk of suffering, would you escape, would you suffer? As the most people… Well, you answer for yourself. I think of Schindler in Schindler’s List. We admire Schindler because he helped people he didn’t have to. Partly we admire him because of the great personal risk that he took but I think a big piece of it is that we admire him because he did what most people would not. Otherwise, we would not admire him. You don’t admire someone for falling off a log. You admire people for doing things that you would not have done yourself.
And so, let me bring this to the here and now. Last July 4 I posted a story in Inc. It was called A Millennial Making America Clean Again. It was about a student of mine who took on a personal challenge to live by his values to pick up 10 pieces of trash per day. And he wrote about his experience after having picked up 10 pieces of trash every day for a month. I asked him what it was like and you can read word for word what he wrote the whole text or the whole email in that article in Inc. and he wrote, “Just yesterday as I picked up a piece of paper napkin someone had dropped 10 feet from a garbage can, I mused over how I’ve heard people say they wish they had witnessed live MLK’s deliverance of his I Have A Dream speech or how they would have denounced the Holocaust had they lived in Nazi occupied Germany and been non Jewish Germans.” And continuing to quote him, “But if people can’t act on their values when the stakes aren’t high, then how can they expect to act on them when the consequences of their inaction affect not only themselves but an entire group of people?”
So, they say when you can’t check that they would do something really big. But when you can check they don’t do these little small things. It’s easy to say that you would resist Nazis when no one can check but most people don’t even stop using plastic bags or flying which is much, much easier knowing when they’re hurting others. So, here’s a way to check your own personal likelihood to live by your values in the face of personal risk. If you oppose racism and you would’ve resisted racist then, and let’s say not in the whole full-bore Holocaust but let’s see the early 30s when they were rising to power and there’s rising anti-Semitism but no one could have guessed what was going to come ten years later. If you push racism and you would’ve resisted racist then, do you also oppose pollution today? If so, do you accept personal risk to live by that value? And I don’t mean just buying green when it’s convenient. I mean like riding your bike instead of taking a taxi or instead of driving or not flying every now and then. Actually, forget personal risk. Would you simply go out of your way a little bit?
Case in point, the human body can go without water for hours with zero problem. For day with not much of a problem, I mean if you eat, fruit you’re going to get a bunch of liquid there, you can go for a while without drinking water. We are swimming in disposable bottles that people get for just to drink water because they can’t go for half an hour without drinking water. And let me be more precise. It’s not that they can’t go without water, it’s that they choose, they don’t want to go without the water because their bodies can go without the water with no problem. And these bottles by the way, these plastic bottles in principle recyclable according to National Geographic 9 percent of recyclable plastic is recycled. So, it’s mostly garbage but to produce it, it produces a lot of waste. So, it’s basically polluting just less than outright waste. But there are mountains, mountains made of recyclable plastic that we don’t recycle and we pay Third World countries to accept. Why? Because we can’t go for half an hour or an hour or two without drinking water. Or I should say we choose not to go for half an hour or an hour or two without drinking water. We carry it with us everywhere we go and then there’s the bottles. So, waiting an hour or two to drink water it seems to me really trivial but billions don’t do it. And going without water for a little bit is not really that big of a deal. So how about avoiding packaged food in general? Or avoiding a flight or two or years of flying? Or lowering the thermostat in the winter and wearing a sweater? Most people consider these trivially simple acts of acting by their values too much to ask.
So, let me [unintelligible] from another angle. A big issue on campuses today and big issue in the United States is how to handle racists and slave owners’ names on buildings. So, this is happening at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Duke, Brown, among plenty of other schools and communities, Charlottesville for example. So, say you belong to a community where there’s a slaveholder’s name on a building. Say it’s at a university where you go. What do you do? Personally, I think you take the slave owner’s name down, you take their statue out of the park. What would you expect a school to do? I think that independent of what you think is right, I think you still to take a kind of community and you have to get through committees, make sure the alumni and all this. I think it takes a little while. Even when everybody agrees, it’s just systems take a little while for things to work through. My point is that it’s easy to demand action when someone else is the decision maker, when you’re not the decision maker. Decision makers tend to have to consider multiple constituencies and interests often conflicting even when everyone agrees. Still, deciding on names on buildings is really small compared to something like a Schindler level decision. The stakes are lower, no one’s deciding building names, no one’s life is at stake. Plus, it’s [unintelligible]. Taking them off a building or a statue out of a park is not rewriting history, it’s just choosing whom you honor, given that you’ve limited resources to honor you can honor everybody. So, I think it’s not hard to conclude as most universities are and most municipalities are, even in the Deep South, to stop honoring slave holders and racists.
But now I want to go back to back then. I mean think of Thomas Jefferson. I’m going to quote Wikipedia here, “Starting in 1767, at age 24 Jefferson inherited 5000 acres of land and 52 slaves by his father’s will.” Then it continues, “Through his marriage to Martha Wales in 1772 and inheritance from his father in law in 1773, he inherited two plantations and one hundred thirty-five slaves.” OK, Thomas Jefferson did not ask for these slaves. He didn’t ask to be born into a country or colonies where it was legal and normal, normal in the sense of a lot of people were doing it. But I want to put to you this question, and I think everyone knows the answer but I’m going to ask you anyway because think of it in terms of either Jefferson or think of a slave owner in a deep, deep south. What would you do if you owned slaves? I think most people who say, “We should take the names of the building,” would say immediately, “Free the slaves.” No question about it. Now, you could point out but if you lived in a community where everyone owned slaves, if you got rid of yours and everyone else didn’t get rid of theirs, you just impoverish yourself – you lose out on your plantation, you lose out on all this free labor and it’s not really going to change anything. So what’s the point? Or you could say, “I’m going to lose all the stuff. It’s legal.” You could say, “Some people say it’s even good.” There’s probably some science, we call pseudoscience today but I don’t know if they would call it pseudoscience then that people would say, “It’s supposed to be this way or we’re built this way, they’re built that way, that’s what it’s supposed to be.”
So, taking all that into account does that change your answer? I don’t think it changes anyone’s answer. I think everyone would still say, “You get rid of the slaves.” It doesn’t matter that other people aren’t doing it. No one wants to be a slave. You don’t want to be a slave. So, they don’t want to be a slave. So, don’t enslave people, free your slaves. I think everybody would agree on that. So, what about you today? Which is harder: freeing slaves or avoiding disposable water bottles? Because if you say that you would get rid of slaves and you wouldn’t accept the argument that, “Well, if you do it and no one else does, it doesn’t make a difference” or you don’t accept the argument that, “Well, maybe they actually want it that way or it’s legal.” If you don’t accept that, what do you accept to justify all the bottled water? Or putting on the air conditioner so high in the summer? Or flying all over the world when you feel like it knowing that other people are suffering from this stuff? That knowing that you’re contributing to the sea levels rising, you’re contributing to the coral reefs dying, you’re contributing to all the different things we know, we’ve read them in the paper. You know what I’m talking about, you know the consequences of your actions but you still choose to do them.
On the flip side, if you choose not to do them for someone listening to the Leadership and the Environment podcast, you could take a leadership role. You could be on the forefront of this. Imagine you were on the forefront of freeing slaves. You can be in the forefront of a significantly smaller thing but still important of polluting less, of living by your values. Because a lot of people say, “Well, if I don’t pollute but other people do, it doesn’t make a difference.” A lot of people say it’s legal. A lot of people say, “Well, it’s possible that some technological solution will happen later.” Well, that technological situation isn’t around here now. And the waste keeps growing and the CO2 levels and the greenhouse gas levels keep going higher and higher and higher. If you say that you would get rid of your slaves, doesn’t that also mean that you would not use disposable water bottles? That you would take public transportation or ride a bike?
Now, people out there would probably misinterpret what I’m saying to say I’m falsely equilibrating slavery and pollution which I’m not. In fact, on the contrary, I’m saying pollution is easier, incomparably easier to act on than slavery. So, if you’re clear on your values and how you would act on them with regard to slavery, are you not more clear on your values with regard to polluting other people’s worlds, to putting garbage in the oceans, to putting pollution in the air that other people have to breathe? So, are you true to your word and acting on your environmental values, or are you flying for your comfort and convenience? Are you turning on your thermostat so that you can wear shorts inside in the winter and sweaters and inside in summer? How about your meat consumption? How about driving instead of biking? Or are you saying that you behave a certain way in a difficult situation when no one can check but when the situation is much easier and people can check you’re not behaving consistently that way? I don’t know. It’s not me. I’m asking you.
But if that’s the case for you, can you do something different? Now I hope I’m not saying, “Well, I guess it’s harder to act on this than I thought. Maybe it’s not so easy for the slave owners. Maybe it was more hard then.” I hope you do not come to that conclusion because I don’t come to that conclusion. I come to the conclusion if other people could live by their values when it was harder for them, then I can live by my values when it’s easy for me. The big reason I’m doing this podcast is that when I’ve done it what felt like it was going to be deprivation and sacrifice, what felt like it was going to be hard, it took me a long time to get there but ultimately, I found it was better for my life. You could say that living without slaves improves your life. I guess you don’t have all that free labor but you live in a community where people are doing what they want for their own reasons. And that’s what I think we have available to us.
If you think, if you are confident that you would get rid of slaves even though no one else was, even though it was legal and all sorts of reasons, then does that also point you to living by your values environmentally today which I put to you is much, much easier and in my experience much more rewarding. It’s made my life more delicious, more convenient, saving money, all these things. So, I want to repeat my student’s words. From his experience of just picking up 10 pieces of trash per day, it didn’t cost him a penny, took less than a minute a day probably, he said, “I mused over how I’ve heard people say they wish they witnessed live MLK’s deliverance of his I Have A Dream speech. Or how they would have denounced the Holocaust had they lived in Nazi occupied Germany and been non-Jewish Germans. But if people can’t act on their values when the stakes aren’t high, then how can they expect to act on them when the consequences of their inaction affect not only themselves but entire group of people?” So, I ask you which is easier: freeing slaves or not using disposable cups and bottles?
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